Questions about Sheriff Thomas' house

January 31, 2008 9:03:41 AM PST
Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas faces tough questions from 13 Undercover about his ranch house in the country and who helped design it.Now there are new questions about a county official and a big county contractor. And this time it's Harris County's top cop, a man whose salary every county taxpayer pays.

The quiet of the Colorado County countryside is broken as we make our way hour west of Houston. What is 13 Undercover out here looking for? A home sheriff Tommy Thomas doesn't think you have a right to see.

"You wouldn't tell the public where this home is?" I asked Thomas on tape.

"No, this is something I don't think is an issue here," Thomas replied. "I live in Harris County, Texas, my homestead and residence is in Harris County, Texas."

True, but we're looking for the sheriff's weekend retreat. It is right outside New Ulm, Texas. The 80 acre Thomas Ranch, according to county tax records, is worth $1.1 million. A brand new, nearly 3,500 square foot stone house with an expensive metal roof sits in the shade of live oak trees valued at more than half a million dollars.

The sheriff doesn't know we've seen it.

"Where I go on the weekends or whenever I get time off is not a big concern," Thomas told us.

You know who helped with the design of some the sheriff's ranch house? It was Leroy Hermes. The architecture firm he founded now has the contract to design the new 1,100 bed county jail off Atascosita Road. A jail project the sheriff plays a role in approving.

"I'm sure I agreed to it, but I don't recall whether I signed off on it, I just don't recall," he said.

Thomas says Hermes volunteered to help redesign the sheriffs house plans to avoid removing huge live oak trees on the property.

"He doesn't design houses, he designs buildings," Thomas said. "It's a hobby and he said he'd be honored if he could help, I said ok."

I asked how much that would cost in the private sector.

"I have no idea," he responded.

The sheriff says the offer was made from one good friend to another, not because of the county business Hermes' firm would eventually solicit.

"This has nothing to do with any contracts with Harris County," Thomas said.

Thomas says he's been friends with Hermes 15 years.

"Leroy is a good friend, he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart, I don't think there was anything more to it than that," Thomas told us.

Twenty five miles from the Thomas Ranch you get to the Hat Creek Ranch. You know whose ranch this is? It's owned by Leroy Hermes. And it's a bonanza of prime country real estate. A ranch the sheriff says he's been a guest at more than once including last year.

"He had built some new stalls for his horses just killing time," the sheriff said.

Last year Hermes architects got the new jail job.

I told him to tell the voters why they don't have a right know how much he paid on the house.

"That's something that's private between Leroy and I," Thomas said.

But Thomas claims he did pay.

"This was thousands, right," I asked.

"Yeah," Thomas responded.

"You paid him thousands of dollars?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said again.

"But you won't tell us how much," I asked.

"No," he responded.

"So it's possible you got a better deal than Joe Six Pack would have gotten," I asked.

"Possible," he said.

The new jail had to get the ok of the commissioner of Precinct 4, Jerry Eversole.

What a small world. Plans show Leroy Hermes stamp on the design plans for Eversole's new home in the Heights. The commissioner won't tell the public how much he paid either.

Now it's questions about the sheriff's house.

"Do you see this is as much a problem," I asked Thomas.

He said no.

Leroy Hermes has been a political supporter of the sheriffs for years, but you know when his company gave its biggest contribution by far to the sheriff? Six days after the sheriff's office formally requested to proceed with the $33 million jail Hermes is designing.

Hermes architects have been in the news a lot lately. The FBI has subpoenaed records of the company's work on a city fire academy as part of a bribery investigation. And the FBI has taken the lead role in the Eversole investigation, including the work done on the Precinct 4 commissioner's house.

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